Who Invented Memes?

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Bertrand Russell said that if he were to be remembered, it wouldn’t be for his many books and articles, nor his ardent anti-war campaigning. Rather it would be for a funny little mathematical paradox he discovered over 100 years ago: what happens when you try to construct the set of all sets that don’t contain themselves.Similarly, if Richard Dawkins is remembered in 100 years I don’t think it will be for his ardent atheistic campaigning, nor for his championing of the contemporary neo-Darwinian synthesis. I think that it will be for a funny little section of his first book, The Selfish Gene, in which he defines “memes” and gives them their distinctive name. It’s a playful section that proposes something deeply serious and interesting: that the contents of culture can, at least on the face of it, be analyzed using evolutionary theory. Here’s Dawkins giving the original proposal:We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain…Since the original proposal by Dawkins, there have been immense difficulties in turning “memetics” into a science. No one has come forward with a solid proposal about how culture actually works via the principles of variation, heredity, and differential reproduction.As an undergraduate in college I did an independent study with a professor trying to resolve this issue. Together we worked to evolve an idea across classrooms, presenting a text definition and then allowing people to contribute to it. We watched it change, like on Wikipedia, as people added and took away based on what sections they thought best answered a particular question. In the final analysis it didn’t work. Elements of the text had changed, absolutely, but had they evolved? What was a unit of selection in a text?